At midnight, a tap on my knee brings me awake and momentarily frantic. But it is not a nurse or doctor from the intensive care unit (ICU). The grizzled man next to me offers a candy bar. I accept and chew mechanically, looking around the cramped waiting room at a brotherhood for which membership has a terrible price.

This fraternity endures an existence that balances on the razor’s edge of hope and despair. Long after friends and family members have gone home for the night, the ICU waiting room is peopled by a few young and old men. Sometimes wives, sisters and grandmas fill the chairs, but the late night shift is a duty usually assumed by male family members.

Their faces are wan from exhaustion, too many cigarettes and bad coffee spewed by the vending machine. Hollow eyes and grim expressions belie the rush of emotion that each man experiences when the double doors of the ICU open from the inside. Is it your turn to be told the worst news? Are they calling you to the bedside for the last time?

My sons and I have been here for weeks, taking turns on the midnight watch. We know the other sentinels and for whom they wait and pray. They know us and understand that, back there in the unit, our wife and mother struggles to survive. They’ve seen us, grown men, break down.

The brotherhood takes care of its own, especially when the next crisis comes. A doctor or nurse suddenly entering the room causes all the men to stand. There is no private or confidential news among us. We share the positive and negative, and it is mostly the latter.

There are no quick resolutions in ICU, except death. Recovery is the slow road, step by step -- often hour by hour. How can you live with these men for weeks and not become one of them? I know as much about their critically ill loved ones as they do about mine.

Sometimes we reminisce about the paths that brought us to this room. For example, Jerry bears faded prison tattoos and recent scars. He’s tough and world worn, walks with a limp. Made some mistakes in his life, he admits, and had problems with the law.

But he’s here for his mother, to whom he is devoted.

He has shown all of us kindness, bringing hamburgers and Cokes, standing beside us when hammer blows of bad news come. We ride a roller coaster that seems to drop more than climb. His strength has helped us all, but we’ve seen him unashamedly sob.

We gather around, channeling strength and hope back to him.

Harold has a goal. His wife could be released soon, sent home to be cared for by Hospice if she survives the next week. But first, she wants to see their grandson graduate from college.

“She raised that boy and loves him like a son. He has no idea she is so sick. She won’t let me tell him,” Harold says. “Gonna put her in a wheelchair, get her an oxygen tank and mask, and roll her right up to the stage where they hand out the diplomas. That’s why she’s fighting for a few more days.”

Their grandson is going to be a doctor. The irony is not lost on any of us. We congratulate Harold, proud that his wife’s last days will have extra meaning.

Tom speaks in a monotone through a thick walrus mustache. Watery blue eyes give the only indication of his state of mind. He is the most veteran of us. His wife has been in-and-out of ICU for months. He’s in the waiting room every night. A rock-like presence in a corner chair, this man has seen dozens of brotherhood members come and go.

“This is a helluva place,” he says, “four corners of a room, uncomfortable chairs and...” He doesn’t finish, but we know the word he gropes for is “despair.” That’s what we fight hardest against. To feel despair is to give up.

Our sad group has only one reason to exist. We pray that this trial somehow turns out all right, that the lives we have known resume and that God will grant our loved ones renewed health or His Grace. Who could suspect the existence of these former strangers supporting one another through lonely stretches of night when hope fades and needs to be rekindled? My sons and I never did until they accepted us into their midst and helped bear the sorrow, as we did for them.

■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.